Do Alexei Navalny’s democratic credentials outweigh his nationalist past?
Hours after Putin declared victory in the Russian presidential elections, Russia’s anti-corruption movement, led by blogger and great white hope of Western democracy-watchers Alexei Navalny, is regrouping. Despite the result, largely considered to be inevitable, Russian politics are no longer entirely predictable.
While the count was still continuing, Navalny tweeted that ‘Carousel-ess Kristina reports that they are paying 5000 roubles’ (a little over £100), referring to the practice of ‘carousel voting’ – bringing in busloads of voters to cast ballots in multiple districts. Accusations of fraudulent electoral practices such as these are certain to cast shadows on Putin’s win in the aftermath of the election.
(Click here for a video [in Russian] linked to by Navalny of the seemingly seamlessly executed campaign: go to the 8-minute mark for footage of groups of voters being led out of the Metro and into a polling station.)
But what of the man who coined the term ‘party of crooks and thieves’ that has dogged United Russia in the run-up to the election?
Followers of Navalny’s blog, which carries the tag line ‘the final fight between good and evil’, accompanied by a photo of a huge blonde boxer grabbing the jaw of a diminutive brown-haired opponent, may not find things so clear-cut.
In January of this year, the Guardian published a profile of Navalny, drawing attention to a facet of the man Time called ‘Russia’s Erin Brockovich’ that has thus far received little attention in the Western press. This followed a lengthy profile of the anti-corruption campaigner in the New Yorker in April by veteran Russia correspondent Julia Ioffe. Uncomfortably for Navalny’s liberal admirers, he was formerly one of the leaders of Russia’s far right nationalist movement.
Once a member of the liberal Yabloko (Apple) party, Navalny was expelled not long after he participated in the inaugural ‘Russian March’ in 2006. Organised by the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), the march has now spread to multiple cities in the former Soviet Union and is attended by members of neo-Nazi movements and the Ku Klux Klan. Navalny has attended the march every year since its inception.
After Navalny was forced out of Yabloko, he became a co-founder of the far-right NAROD (people) movement. Russia’s ultranationalists direct their hatred mainly toward Muslim migrants to Russia’s cities from the Caucasus. Groups such as Pamyat (Memorial) lead the cries of ‘Russia for Russians’ and ‘migrants today, occupiers tomorrow’.
Since the mid-1990s, Russia has experienced a massive upswing in racist violence, with dozens of murders each year. In February 2004, the world was shocked by reports of a 9-year old Tajik girl stabbed to death by skinheads in St Petersburg. Amnesty International reported in 2006 that racism in Russia was ‘out of control’.
Careful readers of Navalny’s blog can find evidence of his feelings towards Central Asian migrants, for whom he uses the disparaging term ‘chuchmeki’, in a post from May 2008, though he has been careful to keep his anti-corruption activism separate from his anti-immigration campaigning. In the post, he described being annoyed by some construction workers making noise early in the morning near his apartment: ‘At exactly seven am the chuchmeki hit sledgehammers on some bits of metal making a simply hellish racket … and, as it happens, none of the chuchmeki are wearing helmets of course. And then we wonder where the Tajiks with fractured skulls who are found under bushes are coming from. It’s always something like “another skinhead attack’.
Skinhead is virtually a synonym for ultranationalist in Russia, as the most active tend to sport shaven heads.
Prudently, Navalny has indulged increasingly rarely in nationalist rhetoric since his rise to international fame, far-right leanings sitting uneasily with his international admirers. The question remains, though, of whether Navalny’s democratic credentials can outweigh his nationalist past enough for Russia’s fractured liberal opposition to feel comfortable rallying around him for the long haul.